Color, 1967, 72 mins.

Directed by Aleksandr Ptushko and Georgi Kropachyov & Konstantin Yershov

Starring Leonid Kuralev, Natalya Varley, Aleksei Glazyrin / Music by Karen Khachaturyan / Cinematography by Viktor Pishchalnikov and Fyodor Provorov

Format: DVD - Ruscico (Russian Cinema Council)

Full Frame / Dolby Digital 5.1

This unique, underappreciated fusion of provincial fantasy and full-blooded horror has won over admirers in the West, even without acceptable English language versions available, thanks to its striking special effects sequences engineered by the great Aleksandr Ptushko (The Day the Earth Froze). However, his famous fairy tale aesthetics come into much darker play here, as he tackles the fantastic fiends of Nikolai Gogol's popular short story, "The Vij" (adapted much more loosely in Mario Bava's Black Sunday).

The simple storyline concerns a young, cocky lad named Khoma Brut (Leonid Kuralev), a seminary student in training for the priesthood, who loses his way into a dark forest and separates from his companions on the road. There he encounters a witch who carries him aloft for a dark moonlit adventure from which he barely escapes with his life. At a nearby village, the novice is asked by the locals to stay in their eerie wooden church for three nights to recite holy verses over the body of the wealthiest citizen's daughter (Natalya Varley); unfortunately, as he discovers while trapped for the first night in the church, the dead girl is also the witch... who rises from her coffin, stopped only by a holy circle of chalk drawn around the frightened seminarian. The villagers refuse to believe him the next day and force him to return for two more nights of unbridled horror, during which the sorceress unleashes all of the powers of the underworld to break the magic circle.

Running a tight 72 minutes, this film never overstays its welcome and wisely leaves the viewer wanting more. The second and third witch attacks are among Ptushko's finest work, as the witch rides her coffin in circles through the air, monsters pour from the walls, giant hands erupt from the floor, and "Viy" himself makes an appearance for the grand finale. The rest of the film is a skillful example of the balance between wonder and dread, with religion playing a prominent role from the opening moments to the final, ironic closing lines.

Thanks to Japanese laserdisc, Viy (or The Vij, depending on the print) became something of a gray market video staple, but the Ruscico DVD lifts it to a new level entirely. The stunning disc offers a virtually immaculate, restored video presentation, as well as multiple language options including soundtracks in Russian, English, and French (all skillfully remixed into 5.1) and subtitles in English, French, Dutch, Japanese, German, Russian, and so on. The atmospheric animated menus begin in Russian but can be changed into English by clicking to the left.

As if having this rare masterpiece of the supernatural in English on DVD weren't enough, the package is decked out with a mouthwatering array of extras. The theatrical trailer (in English, oddly enough) and a half hour documentary (in Russian with optional subtitles) about Gogol lead the pack, followed by three marvelous silent horror short films: "Satan Exultant," "The Queen of Spades," and the jarring "The Portrait," which is nearly worth the pricetag by itself. Simply put, every self-respecting horror fan needs this DVD.

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